What does “Write What you Know” Really Mean?

We’ve all heard the writing advice: write what you know.

If taken literally, this bit of wisdom can be perplexing. If we only write what we know, how can we pursue new places and things in our stories? If I only wrote what I knew, all my stories would be about a middle class white girl in the suburbs.

So what does this advice really mean?

A few months back I came across a blog that shared this video, and it has really stuck with me. Take a look:

Gervais says, “Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary because it doesn’t really connect…”

I think what Gervais is touching on here is that it’s the intimacy with what we know that comes across on the page. We must start with the details: the smell of tea and lavender. These are the (perhaps seemingly mundane) details that breathe life into the world of our story. The sensory details, the specifics we pull from our everyday lives are the things that make our stories feel real, they are what our readers connect with.

Natalie Goldberg writes, “…using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believably and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build.”

Our experiences are the basis for our stories, they are what we bring to the table as writers.

Anne Lamott said, “…good writing is about telling the truth.” She also said, “When you tell the truth it turns out to be universal.”

We might believe that unless we have overcome some great hardship, endured a tragedy or experienced a wild adventure, our lives are uninteresting. But hidden in those seemingly mundane experiences of our everyday lives are the secrets we thought we’d never tell anyone, our fears we believed would make us freaks or outcasts – these are the universal truths we uncover in our writing.

For example, I’m currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and there was a magical moment where I learned I was not the only socially anxious English major to have had a fear of college dining halls:

“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you, (And the ones you can’t Google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you? …”

From chapter 2, Fangirl Copyright 2013 by Rainbow Rowell

And all the time I’m reading this, I am thinking, Yes! I thought I was the only one! I thought I was the only socially awkward person with these irrational fears but here is this author, writing about it as if she pulled the thoughts from my mind.

Perhaps Rainbow Rowell had these fears too or knew someone who was brave enough to share those fears with her. Those are our truths that turn out to be universal.

This is the intimacy, the truthfulness, I am always trying to achieve in my writing. Moments like this are why I write (and why I love to read.)

What is your take on this advice? What does “write what you know” mean to you?

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